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Introducing Vocabulary

August 24, 2011

One of the most important steps in Comprehension Based™ teaching, and one that I neglected for a long time, is introducing the Core Vocabulary before jumping into a story or piece of content. As I focus on this step of the process this year, I am already noticing gains in comprehension by students that struggled through much of last year.

Introduce vocabulary to your students in a meaningful way in order to set them up for success as you move on and use the vocabulary in contextualized communication in class.


The purpose of the presentation phase is simply to establish meaning: tell your students what each of the Core Vocabulary structures means. While there are many ways to do this without using English (giving examples and non-examples, gesturing, illustrating), I prefer to -ALWAYS- link meaning to L1. In other words, I -ALWAYS- tell my students what each word means in English. If you are able to use translation to establish meaning, do it! Linking meaning to L1 establishes meaning quickly and ensures correct understanding. Gesturing is not fast. Gesturing is ambiguous. If you can, translate!

  1. Write the words in the target language on the board. I do this with a black marker.
  2. Say the term aloud in the target language, slowly, several times, while pointing to it.
  3. Write the English translation next to the target language term, leaving a small space in the middle. I do this with a blue marker.
  4. Draw a picture that illustrates it in-between the Spanish and English.
  5. Point to the picture and say the term in the target language.
  6. Ask, "¿Cómo se dice «target language term» en inglés?" (How do you say «target language term» in English?)
  7. Teach or cooperatively develop a gesture for the term.
  8. Repeat for each new term, returning to the previous term(s) before you move on to the next.


I began using this step after seeing it in lessons from various Fluency Matters curricula (now Wayside Publishing). Originally, I would move straight from establishing meaning into questioning, and I wondered why my students' heads were spinning!

To contextualize vocabulary, show the students several examples of each target term being used in a comprehensible context. If you're like me, this means planning ahead and writing several sentences that include each term (since I can never seem to think of good examples on the fly). These should be sentences that the students can understand with the help of the "key" that you wrote on the board during Step 1.

For example, if your Core Vocabulary words are "walks", "runs", and "sees", you might show students these sentences:

  • El profesor camina a McDonalds.
  • El tigre corre rápidamente.
  • Mi mamá ve un carro.

Taking the time to contextualize each vocabulary term gives students processing time and prepares them to comprehend the terms when embedded in questions in Step 3.


Here is the fun part :) Again, it is always good to plan ahead and have several questions written that are COMPREHENSIBLE and include the target terms. The more open-ended the questions can be, the better--although I find that I often need to follow up an open-ended question with one or two yes or no's in order to get their creative juices pumping (Ex: What makes your head hurt? Does Justin Bieber's voice make your head hurt? Math homework?) Usually, they will start contributing ideas after one or two yes or no questions. Circle responses and reflect them back to the class for discussion!

I rarely introduce vocabulary and start stories on the same day, not really on purpose, but that's how it usually works out. I like it that way, anyway, because I can use the terms in the next day's bellwork, which allows the students time to remember what they learned the previous day, and gives some opportunity for more PQA and pop-up grammar before we get into the story. (Learn how to ask a story here.)

What are some of the strategies or procedures that you use to introduce vocabulary?

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